Graduation and the Soul of a School

Tears flowed freely as our seniors led chapel during their final high school chapel service. After a superb sermon from one of our seniors, our Dean stepped up to the microphone and reminded us all, “This group will never again assemble in this chapel.” The statement likely elicited more tears and emotions as we each realized the truth of those words. As I listened, I was reminded of the words of Heraclitus, the great pre-Socratic philosopher. One of his well-known aphorisms states, “You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on. They go forward and back again.”[1] Heraclitus’ aphorism means that it is impossible for one to step into the same river twice for two reasons. First, we as humans change, so the one who steps into the river again later is not the same as the one who stepped in before. Likewise, although one steps in the same place, the water which runs there is not the same water as ran before, since the water continues to go downstream.

Heraclitus’ words are quite intriguing. One of the more striking implications of his aphorism is that we only have one chance at any moment, at any decision, for even if a semblance of that moment or decision were to return again, we would not be the same person we were before. In this respect, I sympathize with Heraclitus’ point. As I sat at chapel today, our Dean’s reminder was a wise word to help us savor rather than neglect the moment. Embrace the present, he might have said, for it immediately becomes the past, never to be repeated.

I likewise contemplated the idea that the river is not the same river because the water which runs through it is not the same that came before. I remember reading long ago, and I can’t recall where, a riddle about a boat. A wooden ship sat at harbor in need of repair. Slowly, board by board, the craftsmen replaced the various parts of the ship. Eventually, not one board remained from the original. So, the riddle asked, is it the same boat? I think Heraclitus raises a similar question. As I watched the seniors walk off the stage, I pictured next year, with each class K-5 class moving back a row, the 6th graders crossing the aisle, and the 7-11 grade students moving up one row toward the front. Ninety percent of our students will be the same, but there will certainly be change. But what about in thirteen years, a not so outrageous number to consider, when not a single student from today sits in that chapel? Will we be the same school, or, like Heraclitus’ river or the boat of the riddle, will we be a different school altogether?

Finally, I considered whether it is true that we are not the same person that we were before. Certainly in one sense this is true. Biologically speaking, our cells reproduce and die, so our cellular makeup is ever changing, making it reasonable to say that we are different than we were before. And yet, biologically speaking we maintain the same DNA, so in that respect perhaps we are the same. Likewise, we grow and change, and as Christians we become more like Christ, so in that respect we are not who we once were. And yet again, as embodied souls, our identity as an individual, distinct, created soul does not change, so in that respect we do not change.

So I concluded: perhaps our schools are like our souls. They mold, they change, they have good seasons, they have bad seasons, they have successes, the have failures, and more. But at heart, our school is a soul that lives and breathes and continues on. Like our own selves, we don’t forget our past, for each student, like each moment of our lives, played a vital role in shaping who we have become. I’ll miss this senior class, and all the more because I know that the soul of the school they are leaving will continue to pulse on with vibrant life, but also because it will never be the same.

[1]Heraclitus, The Complete Fragments, translation and commentary by William Harris, accessed from http://users.humboldt.edu/jwpowell/heraclitusTransBillHarris.pdf.

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